Former student Adrian Smith '66
designs world's tallest building


When the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, officially opened Jan. 4 in Dubai amid a flurry of fanfare, former Texas A&M architecture student Adrian Smith ’66 was among the honored guests. It was he, after all, who designed the shimmering spire that soars more than a half mile above the desert in the United Arab Emirates, rising to an official height of 828 meters, or 2,716.5 feet.

“It was the culmination of many years of work and one of the most thrilling moments of my career,” said Smith, 65, who studied architecture at Texas A&M for four years spanning 1962-66 before being lured by a summer internship to Chicago where he eventually landed a job, finished his degree and went on to become the world’s most experienced designer of supertall buildings.

"The Burj Dubai, now Burj Khalifa, was designed not for ego gratification or to fulfill a list of superlatives. It was designed to lift the spirits of a nation and a culture, and to bring joy and inspiration to its citizens," said Smith, who designed the structure while working in the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the same firm that offered the aspiring young architect that job back in 1967. It was the job and its promise, he said, that ultimately kept him from returning to Texas A&M to finish his architectural studies.

Smith worked at SOM for almost 40 years, advancing through the ranks and eventually serving as chief executive officer from 1992 – 95, before leaving in 2006 to start his own Chicago-based firm, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture.

Currently he is the designer of three of the world's top 10 tallest completed buildings: Burj Khalifa in Dubai (#1), Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago (#7, at 423 meters or 1387.7 feet) and Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai (#8, at 421 meters or 1381.2 feet), according to the official rankings of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

When Nanjing Greenland Financial Center finishes construction this year in Nanjing, China (it will enter the tall buildings list at #6), Smith will have designed four of the world's top 10 tallest completed buildings. Additionally, the current sixth-tallest building in the world, Chicago's Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower), is in the early stages of a green retrofit under the direction of AS+GG.

School days
Though born in Chicago, Smith moved with his family at age five to San Clemente, Calif. He wound up at Texas A&M back in 1962, in part, because he had a brother in the Air Force stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

“I looked at schools in Texas, Arizona, California and Illinois where I had contacts and family and decided that A&M was least expensive and I liked the program,” he said. Though upon arriving in College Station, he was surprised to learn that, in those days, two years of service in the Corps of Cadets was compulsory.

“I actually didn’t know,” Smith mused. “I hadn’t realized that I’d be wearing uniforms all day long, living in dorms and going to bed with a curfew. I remember marching to breakfast, lunch and dinner six days a week.”

But ultimately, his stint in the Corps proved valuable. “It gave me a certain discipline,” he said.

Looking back over an incredibly distinguished career, he considers his time at Texas A&M as “formative,” especially his architectural studies and the guidance of a few professors, namely Cecil Steward, Edward Romieniec (now deceased) and John Greer, who have remained his friends throughout his career.
“It was a pretty straightforward program, offering a good background in fundamentals, architectural design, technology and mechanical and structural engineering, Smith said of what was then a five-year professional architecture program at Texas A&M.

“They had a room with a sun dome that allowed us to study ways in which the sun impacted buildings,” he recalled, referring to the “artificial sky” lab housed in the dome atop Langford Building B, which was used for daylighting simulations in the days before computer applications rendered it obsolete. “The consideration of how climate and sunlight affects the structure of a building definitely had some influence on my career.”

In 1966, Smith served as president of the Texas A&M Chapter of the American Association of Architecture Students. While president, he penned an essay, “The Architecture of Aggieland,” for a university publication.

Chicago beckons
In the summer after his fourth year at Texas A&M, Smith applied for internships at the Chicago offices of Perkins & Will and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to “get some real-life experience.” Though neither firm was hiring at the time, Cecil Steward, his fourth-year instructor who had previously worked at Perkins + Will, pulled some strings and landed the aspiring architect an internship.

Though he’d originally planned to return to Texas A&M in the fall to complete his degree, the excitement of working with a major-league, big-city firm proved too appealing and he stayed on to work the entire year.

“I was working on some very exciting projects and learning a great deal,” he said. Though he was still planning to return to Texas, a job opened up at SOM in March 1967 and he seized the opportunity.

“I worked there through the 1967 season,” he said, “then I had the opportunity to work part time while finishing up my courses at the University of Illinois at Chicago, so that is what I did.”

Smith said Romieniec, who would become the first dean of the College of Architecture at Texas A&M in 1969, visited him a few times in Chicago and that he still sees Greer, his first-year studio instructor, at American Institute of Architecture functions. However, he said, the professor that initially landed him that first internship in Chicago, Cecil Steward, who is now dean emeritus and emeritus professor of architecture and planning at the University of Nebraska, “has, with his extreme interest in sustainability, definitely influenced my direction in architecture.”

Steward, Smith said, played in integral role in helping SOM earn an American Institute of Architects Architecture Firm Award in 1996, and inversely, Smith played a role in Steward’s successful nomination for the Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education, an award presented by the AIA and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.

An architectural polymath
Upon returning to his native Chicago in 1966 as an architectural intern, Smith said the city skyline, which looked like “man-made mountains on the prairie,” inspired him, tweaking his interest in tall buildings. Early on at SOM, he learned the secrets of skyscraper design directly from Bruce Graham, architect of the Sears Tower and John Hancock Center.

By 1980 he was a partner with the firm and, influenced by Mexican architect Luis Barragán, he became a devotee of contextualism: the idea that new buildings ought to relate to geography, the culture, and especially the architecture immediately around them.

As a result, his buildings are usually based on the idea of an aesthetic continuum rather than a sharp break with precedent. Even the oversized Burj Khalifa draws inspiration from its environs, the contours of its floors evoking the pointed arches of Islamic architecture.

“I wanted real buildings that felt very much a continuation of the fabric of the city they were in,” Smith told Kevin Nance, architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, in an article reprinted in the book “The Architecture of Adrian Smith, 1980-2006, SOM.” “When I designed a building, I wanted it to look as if it could only exist in this location—it would be out of place anywhere else.”

Over the years, nearly every one of Smith’s projects has achieved international acclaim in one form or another. SOM projects under his guidance have earned more than 90 awards for design excellence, including seven national AIA awards. He has been presented the Urban Land Institute’s Award for Excellence in Large Scale Urban Development/Mixed Use, the prestigious FIABCI (International Real Estate Federation) Prix d’Excellence Award, and the Gold Prize of the Shanghai Classic Buildings.

Smith has designed buildings in China, England, Germany, Brazil, Kuwait, Canada, Korea, Guatemala, Bahrain, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Dubai and the United States.

“His expertise covers areas as broad as operations, marketing, finance, and professional services,” wrote James P. Cramer, chairman and CEO of The Greenway Group, in the foreword to the aforementioned book. “He is truly one of the few architectural polymaths, a person who has great diversity of skills and immense intellect.”

At AS+GG, Smith has assembled one of the most experienced design teams in the world, including several key figures on SOM's design teams for Burj Khalifa and other supertall projects. In addition to AS+GG partners Gordon Gill and Robert Forest, both experts in the supertall field, these include Peter Weismantle, SOM's senior technical architect on Burj Khalifa and now director of Supertall Building Technology at AS+GG; Roger Frechette, formerly a director in charge of sustainable engineering at SOM, and now president of AS+GG's new environmental energy engineering company; and several other former SOM architects with experience in supertall projects.

Since its inception three years ago, AS+GG has been commissioned to design six new supertall towers over 500 meters in height, including two towers over 800 meters. These are now on hold due to the economic recession.

Smith and partner Gordon Gill have collaborated to design two of the world's most sustainable buildings. These include Pearl River Tower, the world's first planned net-zero-energy tower, currently under construction in Guangzhou, China, and Masdar Headquarters, the world's first large-scale positive-energy building—meaning it will generate more power than it consumes—now under construction in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Pearl River was designed while Smith and Gill were at SOM; Masdar HQ is an AS+GG project. AS+GG has also recently augmented its design services with the addition of Peter Kindel, a former associate partner at SOM who is now AS+GG's Director of Urban Design.

Sustainable design
Sustainability is central to Smith’s designs and his tall and supertall buildings, “though really built more for landmark recognition,” he said, “than for any other reason,” are no exception.

“The world is urbanizing at a rate of 100 million people per year,” Smith said. “There is limited land available in those urban environments, so one has to go up, build vertically.”

Skyscrapers such as Burj Khalifa are inherently sustainable because they accommodate a large number of people on a small footprint, which helps save agricultural land from development and reduce carbon emission associated with commuting to and from suburbs. They also offer efficient vertical and horizontal transportation systems, encouraging the use of public transit and creating increasingly walkable cities.

“If you build a John Hancock Center or Sears Tower or Burj Dubai, that actually saves 700 acres of suburban development,” said Smith. “Now you can take the 700 acres and put it into farmland or wind farms or agriculture or tree growth and forestation and it becomes very sustainable. Added to that,” he continued, “if you build several tall buildings adjacent to each other or near each other, you create a city within a city where people are walking to work and living in or near the places they are working in, so they are not commuting 10 to 20 miles.”

In addition to designing new sustainable buildings, AS+GG is committed to the greening of existing structures and helping the building design industry meet its goal of “zero net energy” buildings by the year 2030. To that end, Smith says his firm is starting a new company that will focus entirely on green retrofits of existing structures.

“40 to 50 percent of carbon emissions are caused by buildings, not transportation systems,” Smith said. “In order to come close to the 2030 Challenge, each of the existing buildings designed and built between 1950 and 2000 need to be worked on in terms of reducing their carbon footprint to the tune of almost 80%. So there is a tremendous amount of work to be done in the retrofitting of existing buildings in order to reduce carbon. That’s the goal,” he continued, “whether or not it’s the cause of global warming, it is an important aspect of a cleaner environment. I believe that’s a point for consideration.”


- Posted: Feb. 01, 2010 -

— the end —

Contact:   Phillip Rollfing, or 979.458.0442.


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Adrian Smith

Burj Khalifa

Nanjing Greenland
Financial Center

Trump International
Hotel & Tower

Masdar Headquarters

Facts about Burj Khalifa

Press coverage focusing on Smith's Burj Khalifa design

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